Sources for Whitby Abbey

The following lists provide a summary of the main sources for our knowledge and understanding of Whitby Abbey.

Inscribed fragment of an Anglian grave marker found at Whitby Abbey
This inscribed fragment found at Whitby may have been part of a stone marking the grave of Ælfflæd, who succeeded Hild as abbess of Whitby in 680

Primary Sources

A list of the principal primary sources for Whitby Abbey can be seen on the National Archives website.

Anglian Whitby

There are two documentary sources for the history of Streaneshalch and the foundation of the Anglian abbey:

  • Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans and ed L Sherley-Price, rev RE Latham (London, 1990)
  • Colgrave, B, The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby (Lawrence, Kansas, 1968; repr Cambridge, 1985).

The Benedictine Abbey

The main documentary source for the Benedictine abbey at Whitby is its cartulary (London, British Library, Add MS 4715), a compilation of the charters by which it had been given property and legal privileges, which also includes the only account of its foundation. The cartulary has been published as:

  • Atkinson, JC (ed), Cartularium Abbathiae de Whiteby, Surtees Society 69 (vol 1), 72 (vol 2) (Durham, London and Edinburgh, 1879, 1881) [accessed 14 February 2013]. 

The Cholmleys

Material Sources

Whitby Museum (Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society)

A collection of archaeological finds, recovered during the 1920s site clearances and mainly from the Anglian period, is held by the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society at Whitby Museum. It includes dress accessories, domestic items, Anglo-Saxon stone and ceramics.

Finds from the collection are displayed at both Whitby Museum and Whitby Abbey Museum.

Whitby Abbey Museum

English Heritage holds an extensive collection of more than 1,000 artefacts from Whitby Abbey recovered from the 1920s site clearances, further investigations during the 20th century, and the more recent excavations of the headland and the Abbey House north wing. This collection ranges from nationally significant Anglian stone crosses and grave covers to Romanesque and Gothic architectural stonework, including examples of many of the moulding designs used to decorate the buildings, evidence of mason’s marks and techniques and painted decoration.

There is also an assemblage of ceramics and a range of small finds from the Anglian, medieval and Cholmley periods. Many of these are on display on site at Whitby Abbey Museum, and the reserve collection is held at English Heritage’s Helmsley Archaeology Store. A paper-based archaeological archive is also held at Helmsley.

Many finds from the headland excavations are currently held by English Heritage at Fort Cumberland, Hampshire, for post-excavation research. These will be deposited at Helmsley Archaeology Store on completion of the research. 

British Museum

A small number of Anglian finds are currently on display at the British Museum, on loan from the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society. 

Victoria and Albert Museum

The museum holds an embroidered panel from a burse (holder for the cloth used to cover the elements of the Eucharist), thought to come from Whitby Abbey, depicting the Crucifixion and dating from c 1300 (T.344-1920).

An engraving of Whitby Abbey from the west by Francis Grose (c 1790)
An engraving of the abbey from the west by Francis Grose (c 1790). It shows the church before the collapse of the central tower and the west front © Historic England (courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London)

Visual Sources

The Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society holds large collections of historic views and photographs at Whitby Museum. Other views of the abbey (listed in chronological order) include:

  • Buck, S and Buck, N (1711), ‘The North View of Whitby Abbey in the North Riding of Yorkshire’, in Buck’s Antiquities or Venerable Remains of above Four Hundred Castles, Monasteries, Palaces, &c. &c. in England and Wales. With One Hundred Views of Cities and Chief Towns, vol 2 (London, 1774), plate 322 [see Description of Whitby Abbey]
  • F Grose, two views from the south and the south-west, in The Antiquities of England and Wales, Being a Collection of Views of the Most Remarkable Ruins and Antient Buildings, Accurately Drawn on the Spot (London, 1773–87) [see above]
  • Ackermann, R, Whitby Abbey, lithograph (1798–1852), British Museum [accessed 23 Nov 2012]
  • Turner, JMW, various views of Whitby Abbey (1801–c 1824), from the Helmsley and Dunbar Sketchbooks, Tate [accessed 7 May 2013]
  • Buckler, JC, drawing of the church from the north-east (1811), British Library, Add MS 36396, fol 61v
  • Daniell, W, Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, etching (1822), British Museum [accessed 23 Nov 2012]
  • British (English) School, Whitby Abbey, oil on canvas (c 1840), Pannett Art Gallery, Whitby [accessed 23 Nov 2012]
  • Witherby, H, Whitby Abbey, oil on canvas (1858), Pannett Art Gallery, Whitby [accessed 23 Nov 2012]
  • Morgan, A, Part of the Ruins of Whitby Abbey, oil on canvas (c 1862–8), Victoria and Albert Museum [accessed 23 Nov 2012]

Plans, Drawings and Photographs in the Historic England Archive

Items in the Historic England Archive relating to Whitby Abbey include:

  • an album of photographs, postcards and cuttings dating from 1711–1980 mostly relating to Whitby Abbey and St Mary’s Church (AL0126)
  • an album of 53 black-and-white prints of the monastery church, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (AL0976)
  • property file containing 386 drawings, surveys and plans of the abbey (PF/WHA).

More details of these and many other items can be found in the online catalogue. Some material is not yet listed online, including a large collection of aerial photography; for a full search, please contact the enquiry service. Copies of images and documents can be ordered through the website or by contacting the archive. For details of current charges for these services see the archive’s price list.

Secondary Sources

Allan, J, ‘The coins from Whitby’, Archaeologia, 89 (1943), 27–88

Atkinson, JC, A Handbook for Ancient Whitby and Its Abbey (London, 1882)

Atkinson, JC, Memorials of Old Whitby (London, 1894)

Baker, P and Daulby, M, An Early 20th Century Horse Skeleton from Whitby, North Yorkshire, English Heritage CfA report 8/2003 (Swindon, 2003)

Baker, P, et al, Whitby Abbey Headland Project Heritage Lottery Funded Work, 1998–2004, English Heritage CfA report 1/2005 (Swindon, 2005)

Bammesberger, A, ‘A note on the Whitby comb runic inscription’, Notes and Queries, 57:3 (2010), 292–5

Barnwell, P, Butler, LAS and Dunn, CJ, ‘Streanaeshalch, Strensall and Whitby: locating a pivotal council’, in The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300–1300, ed M Carver (Woodbridge, 2003)

Bell, T, ‘A Roman signal station at Whitby’, Archaeological Journal, 155 (1998), 303–22

Binns, J, ‘Sir Hugh Cholmley: Whitby's benefactor or beneficiary’, Northern History, 30 (1994), 86–104

Binns, J (ed), Memoirs and Memorials of Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, 1600–1657, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 153 (Woodbridge, 2000)

Binns, J, Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, 1600–1657: Ancestry, Life and Legacy (Pickering, 2008)

Braddy, GS, ‘Deira, Bernicia and the synod of Whitby’, Cleveland History, 87 (2004), 3–13

Brindle, S, Whitby Abbey (English Heritage guidebook, London, 2010) [buy the guidebook]

Burton, JE, ‘The monastic revival in Yorkshire: Whitby and St Mary’s, York’, in Anglo-Norman Durham, 1093–1193, ed DW Rollason, MM Harvey and M Prestwich (Woodbridge, 1994), 41–51

Burton, J, The Monastic Order in Yorkshire, 1069–1215 (Cambridge, 1999)

Busby, P, ‘Whitby Headland cliff-top’, CfA News, 1 (2001), 6

Busby, P, ‘Whitby Abbey; an archaeologist's view’, Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society Annual Report (2002), 25–7

Charlton, L, History of Whitby and Whitby Abbey (York, 1779)

Clapham, AW, Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire (Ministry of Works guidebook, London, 1952)

Colgrave, B, ‘The earliest life of St Gregory the Great, written by a Whitby monk’, in Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, ed NK Chadwick (Cambridge, 1963), pp 119–37

Cramp, R, ‘A reconsideration of the monastic site of Whitby’, in The Age of Migrating Ideas: early medieval art in northern Britain and Ireland – proceedings of the Second International Conference on Insular Art, Scotland, 1991, ed MR Spearman and J Higgitt (Edinburgh and Stroud, 1993), pp 64–73

Foot, S, Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England c 600–900 (Cambridge, 1999)

Fry, DK, ‘Anglo-Saxon lyre tuning pegs from Whitby’, Medieval Archaeology, 20 (1976), 137–9

Harrison, K, ‘The Synod of Whitby and the beginning of the Christian era in England’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 45 (1973), 108–14

Haseloff, G, ‘An Anglo-Saxon openwork mount from Whitby Abbey’, Antiquaries Journal, 30 (1950), 170–74

Henning, BD (ed), The House of Commons, 1660–1690, vol 2 (London, 1983), 62–3 [entry on Sir Hugh Cholmley II]

Higgitt, J, ‘Monasteries and inscriptions in early Northumbria: the evidence of Whitby’, in From the Isles of the North: early medieval art in Ireland and Britain – proceedings of the Third International Conference on Insular Art held in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, 7–11 April 1994, ed C Bourke (Belfast, 1995), 229–36

Howard, RE, et al, Tree-ring Analysis of Timbers from Abbey House, Whitby Abbey, Whitby, North Yorkshire, English Heritage Research Department Report 37/2006 (Swindon, 2006)

Hunter, D, ‘Whitby Abbey Heritage Lottery funded excavations and recording’, CBA Yorkshire Forum (2003), 34–8

Jennings, S, ‘Evidence for Anglian glass working at Whitby’, AIHV Annales, 16 (2005), 207–9

Jennings, S, and Wilmott, T, ‘Excavations on the Whitby Abbey headland’, Research News (English Heritage), 9 (2008), 8–11

Jennings, S, Muldowney, E and Wilmott, T, ‘Work on the East Cliff at Whitby, 2002’, Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society Annual Report (2002), 25–7

Jennings, S, Muldowney, E and Wilmott, T, ‘Excavation and evaluation on the East Cliff at Whitby, 2002’, CBA Yorkshire Forum (2003), 32–4

Johnson, M, ‘The Saxon monastery at Whitby: past, present, future’, in In Search of Cult: Essays in Honour of Philip Rahtz, ed M Carver (Woodbridge, 1993), 85–9

Jones, CW, Saints' Lives and Chronicles in Early England, together with first English translations of ‘The oldest life of Pope Gregory the Great’ by a monk of Whitby and ‘The life of St Guthlac of Crowland’ by Felix, Romanesque Literature 1 (Ithaca, New York, 1947)

Kerr, J, Monastic Hospitality: The Benedictines in England, c 1070–c 1250 (Woodbridge, 2007)

Kitson-Clark, M, A Gazetteer of Roman Remains in East Yorkshire, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Roman Malton and District Report 5 (Leeds, 1935)

Knowles, D, The Monastic Order in England, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1963)

Lawson, G, ‘Medieval tuning pegs from Whitby, N Yorkshire’, Medieval Archaeology, 22 (1978), 139–41

Lea, R, ‘The Whitby Gladiator’, English Heritage Historical Review, 4 (2009), 85–97

Linford, PK, Whitby Abbey Cliff, Whitby, North Yorkshire: Archaeomagnetic Dating Report 2001, English Heritage CfA report 94/2001 (Swindon, 2001)

Linford, PK, Whitby Abbey Cliff, Whitby, North Yorkshire: Archaeomagnetic Dating Report 2002, English Heritage CfA report 98/2002 (Swindon, 2002)

Luxford, JM, The Art and Architecture of English Benedictine Monasteries, 1300–1540: A Patronage History (Woodbridge, 2005)

Martin, L, Whitby Cliff, North Yorkshire: Report on Geophysical Survey, June 2007, English Heritage Research Department Report 70/2007 (Swindon, 2007)

Mays, SA and Vincent, S, Osteological Analysis of Human Remains from Whitby, Whitby Abbey Headland Project: Southern Anglian Enclosure 1999–2000, English Heritage Research Department Report 27/2009 (Swindon, 2009)

Miller, P, Mills, J and Bryan, P, ‘Scanning for change: assessing coastal erosion at Whitby Abbey Headland’, Research News (English Heritage), 9 (2008), 4–7

Page, W (ed), Victoria County History: A History of Yorkshire North Riding, vol 2 (London 1923), 506–28 [accessed 14 Feb 2013]

Paynter, S and Lucas, V, Whitby Cliff, Whitby, North Yorkshire: An Assessment of Metalworking Debris from the Whitby Cliff Excavations, English Heritage Research Department Report 31/2010 (Swindon, 2010)

Pearson, FR, The Abbey House, Whitby, under the Cholmley Family (Whitby, 1954)

Peers, C and Radford, CAR, ‘The Saxon monastery of Whitby’, Archaeologia, 89 (1943), 27–88 [the only significant archaeological report to have been published to date]

Radford, CAR, ‘A medieval leaden cross from Whitby’, Antiquaries Journal, 20 (1940), 508–9

Rahtz, PA, ‘Whitby 1958’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 40 (1959–62), 604–18

Rahtz, PA, ‘Whitby 1958, Site Two’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 42 (1967), 72–3

Rahtz, PA, ‘Appendix C: the building plan of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Whitby Abbey’, in The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, ed DM Wilson (London, 1976), 459–62

Rahtz, PA, ‘Anglo-Saxon and later Whitby’, Yorkshire Monasticism: Archaeology, Art and Architecture, from the 7th to 16th Centuries, ed LR Hoey, British Archaeological Association, Conference Transactions, 16 (Leeds, 1995), 412–14

Stopford, J, ‘The case for archaeological research at Whitby’, in Early Deira: Archaeological Studies of the East Riding in the Fourth to Ninth Centuries AD, ed H Geake and J Kenny (Oxford and Oakville, Connecticut, 2000), 99–107

Styles, T, ‘Whitby revisited: Bede's explanation of Streanaeshalch’, Nomina, 21 (1998), 133–48

Waters, C, A History of Whitby and Its Place Names (Stroud, 2011)

White, A, ‘Finds from the Anglian monastery at Whitby’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 56 (1984), 33–40

White, A, A History of Whitby (Chichester, 1993)

Wilmott, T, The Whitby Abbey Headland Project, 1993–2013 (English Heritage, forthcoming)

Wilson, DM (ed), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1976)

Young, G, A History of Whitby and Streoneshalh Abbey, 2 vols (Whitby, 1817)

Unpublished Reports

Copies of some of these reports are held in the library at the Historic England Archives, Swindon, open to the public Tuesday–Friday 9.30–17.00;; tel (01793) 414630/414632. It is recommended that you contact the librarian in advance to avoid disappointment.

Batchelor, D and Busby, P, ‘Whitby Headland Project summary report: an archaeological evaluation of the Inward Court, Outward Court and Parlour Yard of Abbey House’, English Heritage (1998)

Batchelor, D and Busby, P, ‘Whitby Headland Project: the development of the garden layouts at Whitby Abbey with special reference to the Inward and Outward Courts’, English Heritage (2000)

Buxton, K, ‘Whitby Abbey – southern Anglian enclosure’, CfA Report 2001, English Heritage (2001)

Clark, K, ‘Whitby Headland Project conservation plan’, English Heritage (1997)

Corney, M, ‘Whitby Abbey: an archaeological earthwork survey of the abbey and environs’, English Heritage (1995)

Geoquest Associates, ‘Geophysical and topographical surveys of Whitby Abbey’ (1992)

Geoquest Associates, ‘Geophysical survey of proposed visitor car park at Green Lane Top’ (1992)

Geoquest Associates, ‘Geophysical and topographical surveys at Whitby, 1993’ (1993)

Geoquest Associates, ‘Geophysical and topographical surveys at Whitby Abbey, 1994’ (1994)

Geoquest Associates, ‘Geophysical survey at Abbey Plain car park, Whitby Abbey, 1995’ (1995)

Lea, R, ‘Whitby Abbey Headland Project: conservation plan – supporting information, annex one: significance, part 1, the Banqueting Hall’, English Heritage (1997)

Martin, L, Abbey Lands Farm, Whitby, North Yorkshire: Report on Geophysical Survey, April 1999, AML Reports (new series) 40/1999, English Heritage (1999)

Wilmott, T, ‘Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire: archaeological evaluation assessment report, 1993–95’, English Heritage (1996)

Wilmott, T, Jennings, S and Brook, E, ‘Whitby, Abbey Lands Farm (new abbey car park); assessment of archaeological watching brief, January 1997’, English Heritage (2004)

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